How bad is the situation for Baroness Warsi?

The Conservative co-chair faces an investigation over expenses. Will she be forced to stand down?

It must be a relief for Jeremy Hunt that he is no longer the only cabinet member under pressure. Attention is currently focused on Baroness Warsi, who is facing calls to stand down after being accused of charging expenses while staying somewhere rent-free. The Lords’ commissioner into standards, Paul Kernaghan, has been asked to hold an official investigation into her conduct.

It has been alleged that the Tory peer – the first Muslim woman to become a cabinet minister – received allowances of £165.50 a night while staying at a friend’s flat in London.

Warsi admits to staying at the flat in Acton, west London, about 12 times over a six week period in February and March 2008. The flat belonged to Naweed Khan, a Conservative Party worker who was later appointed as her special adviser. Warsi maintains that she gave Khan “appropriate financial payment equivalent to what I was paying at the time in hotel costs”. Khan has released a statement confirming that this was the arrangement.

The allegation comes from  Wafik Moustafa, who owns the house. Moustafa, who runs the Conservative Arab Network, told the Sunday Times: "Baroness Warsi paid no rent, nor did she pay any utilities bill or council tax."

How bad is this for Warsi? It is difficult to tell. The accusations are, in the words of Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, "very muddy and blurred". (Graham also suggested, however, that Warsi should not continue to sit in the cabinet until the investigation has been completed).

Yet it is certainly embarrassing, and will not strengthen her position in the party. Warsi is already under pressure over her performance as the Conservative Party’s co-chairman. She lacks authority among her Tory colleagues, and many believe she hasn’t been fighting for the party after poor local election results. While she is widely expected to survive a reshuffle later this year, this development will not help her standing with other Tory MPs. Questions about her competence have come to the fore. A Daily Mail article this morning implies that she was promoted because she “symbolised the public face of a Conservative Party modernised and reformed by David Cameron.” The headline screams: “A Muslim, northern, working-class mum hand-picked for Cameron's A-list... But is Sayeeda Warsi up to the job?” It is a classically insidious line, but one that could be potentially damaging.

The Tory party has so far downplayed the importance of the allegations. It remains to be seen whether more evidence emerges and  the pressure grows sufficiently that Warsi steps down. Certainly, her authority within her own party will not be helped.
 

Warsi enters Downing Street for her first cabinet meeting. May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.